The marsh is alive with the chatter of hundreds of birds. They get agitated as Blake Eldridge steers his small boat near a tangle of head-high vegetation on the shore.
Just a decade back, this place looked like a different world.
“There was nothing out here, just open pasture. And now we see cattails coming up, willows, some tules. It’s really coming around,” he says.
Eldridge works for the Nature Conservancy, which owns this property where the Williamson River flows into Upper Klamath Lake. It was all farmland until the group blew up the dikes, letting the lake flood in and restore the original wetland.
The spire-like tules and billowy willows came in naturally, but there was one native plant that is conspicuously missing – the wocus.
Wocus is a Native American word for the Rocky Mountain Pond Lily. The foot-long lilypads can coat waterways from Alaska to California and east to the Rockies.
At one time, a network of wetlands surrounded Southern Oregon’s Upper Klamath Lake. The sheltered marshy shallows were perfect wocus habitat. But then came dam-building and the conversion of the fertile wetlands for agriculture. The wocus began to disappear.
“For us in particular, it was the Upper Klamath marsh – there was 10,000 acres of wocus. It was said a woman could gather her height in a pile in a day,” says Perry Chocktoot Jr., Director of the Culture and Heritage Department of the Klamath Tribes.
That’s not the case any longer. The tribes have lost a valuable resource: seeds from the wocus yielded a yellow dye for their baskets. Those seeds also provided a major food staple — flour.
“It’s like farina and oatmeal had a baby called wocus,” Chocktoot says.
Eventually the Klamath Tribes would like to add wocus back to their diet.
Bringing the pond lily back should also create habitat for endangered fish species that have been at the center of fights over water supplies in the Klamath Basin.
“Wocus provides a lot of structure and habitat for native species. In particular larval and juvenile suckers out in the lake need cover from predation,” says Klamath Tribes ecosystems restoration scientist Megan Skinner.
This is part of the reason the Nature Conservancy is reestablishing wocus in the Williamson Delta marsh. The lily isn’t moving in naturally, so Blake Eldridge and a small crew are giving it a helping hand.
“We’re looking, usually trying to target places with relatively good cover from wind, and a nice soft substrate,” he says. “If you saw where we harvested these from, it’s in a roadside ditch.”
Christie Adelsberger of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with Eldridge to transplant clusters of wocus from these isolated ditches throughout the marsh.
She stands chest-deep in the mucky water, wearing a bright blue drysuit that’s a little too big and mirrored neon orange sunglasses.
“Christie, do you want me to take your sunglasses?” Megan Skinner calls out from her boat over the incessant chatter of invisible birds in the tules.
“No way,” Adelsberger answeres as she pushes a huge rebar staple into the soft bottom with her foot.
She takes a deep breath and disappears underwater — sunglasses and all — pulling a floating wocus with her.
Suddenly, Adelsberger’s feet shoot up to the surface, thrashing the water and pushing her top half down. She wedges the pineapple-sized wocus bulb under the staple, insuring it’ll have an opportunity to take root.
The crew calls this this awkward dry-suit ballet the “wocus dance.”
The wocus dance could become a little more graceful if a new planting method being tested this year proves effective.
The Nature Conservancy, Klamath Tribes and the Fish and Wildlife Service are working with a local nursery in Bonanza, Oregon, to speed up the whole process.
Annie Sedlacek, the owner of Western Native Plants, started her adventure in wocus-growing about five years ago at the request of the Nature Conservancy.
Following a lengthy trial and error period, heavy on the error, her nursery finally seems to have mastered the basics of growing the water lily from seed.
“We learned a lot about wocus. More than probably anybody ever wants to know,” Sedlacek says, holding a gallon pot with a few small lily pads sagging over the edge.
She drops the lily back into a 6-foot wide repurposed water trough. It’s left over from the days when the nursery was a working ranch. All of these will eventually be used for restoration work in the basin.
The newest innovation Sedlacek is testing – one that could cut the planning time by more than half for Eldridge and his crew – is the use of biodegradable pots.
“We have been experimenting with biodegradable containers that will… endure long enough to be dropped into a waterway and stay there while the plant gets its roots out into the soil,” she says.
This summer, the Klamath Tribe’s Megan Skinner is studying which planting method yields better results and use her findings to plan wocus restoration projects in other parts of the Klamath Basin.
The goal is to speed up the planting process and increase how many wocus survive in the wild.
This is the third year the Nature Conservancy has transplanted wocus into the Williamson Delta marsh. Some clusters seem to be thriving, sending numerous yellow ball-shaped flowers to the surface. Others haven’t made it.
“I probably wouldn’t be happy until all the open water in this part would be wocus, but I likely won’t see that in my lifetime,” Eldridge says.
But even with the labor-intensive staple method, there’s been enough success that Eldridge says it’s worthwhile to keep going, performing some version of the wocus dance for years to come.